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Sunday, 9 February 2014





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Government Gazette

Leopard tales from the past

Nomenclature and description :

[Part 1]

The first reference to a leopard in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, is by Robert Knox, a Britisher, who was a captive in the Kandyan Kingdom in the 17th century. “And although there be both bears and tigers in these woods, yet they are not so fierce, as commonly to assault people; travellers and way faring men go more in fear of elephants than of any other beasts” The tigers Knox refers to are leopards. This is understandable since it is unlikely that during that day and age Knox would have seen neither a tiger nor a leopard and as a result was unable to distinguish between the two.

However, the word panther was also used by many in the old days referring to leopards. R.S. Agar (1942) says that the word panther is generic and that big panthers are called leopards.

The earliest mention of a black leopard from Ceylon is by also by Knox who mentions one in the Royal Zoo at Kandy in the 17th century; other records are from Badulla and John d’Oyle in 1812, when he states that an ancestor of the Elapata Nilame of his day had slain one with his spear at Sitavaka, in the Varigama Atapattu (Deraniyagala, 1943).

“There are two distinct species of the leopard in Ceylon, viz., the Chetah and the ‘leopard’ or ‘panther.’ There have been many opinions on the subject, but I have taken particular notice of the two animals, and nothing can be more clear than the distinction.”

(The chetah is the general name for the small species, but is totally distinct from the well known chetah or hunting leopard, which does not exist in Ceylon - Samuel Baker) The chetah is much smaller than the leopard, seldom exceeding seven feet from the nose to the end of the tail. He is covered with round black ‘spots’ of the size of a shilling, and his weight rarely exceeds ninety pounds.

The leopard varies from eight to nine feet in length, and has been known to reach even ten feet. His body is covered with black ‘rings’ with a rich brown centre - his muzzle and legs are speckled with black ‘spots’ and his weight is from 110 to 170 pounds.

There is little or no distinction between the leopard and the panther, they are synonymous terms for a variety of species in different countries.

Two species

In Ceylon all leopards are termed chetahs; which proceeds from the general ignorance of the presence of the two species (Baker, 1855)”.

“Leopards are the only formidable members of the tiger race in Ceylon, and they are neither very numerous nor very dangerous, as they seldom attack man. By the Europeans, the Ceylon leopard is erroneously called a cheetah, but a ‘true’ cheetah (felis jubata), the hunting leopard of India, does not exist in the island (Tennent, 1861)”.

“It is almost unnecessary to say that the animal commonly spoken of in Ceylon as the ‘Cheetah’ is really the leopard, felis pardus. It is known to most men that the two are quite distinct, and that the former, felis jubata, is not found in the island, nevertheless almost everybody, even including well-known sportsmen, persists in mis-naming the only large feline we have in our forests. The Sinhalese name of the creature is kotiya and the Tamil name puli (Clark, 1901)”.

Clark goes on to say “It has been asserted by men whose opinions are entitled to respect that both the panther and the leopard are to be met with in the Ceylon forests. The former is said to be the larger and to have twenty-eight caudal vertebrae and the latter to have only twenty-two. There appears nothing else in the structure to differentiate them, and it is difficult to believe that two species of the cat tribe, not to be distinguished from one another by sight, could live together in the same forests and remain distinct. Inter-breeding must, in the course of centuries, have merged both species into one.”

Deraniyagala continues “Recently the Colombo Museum acquired the skin and skull of another through the assistance of R. M. Davies, the Government Agent of Sabaragamuwa and his Revenue Officer T.B. Weerakone. In June 1943, the animal, an adult male, had killed a three-quarter grown calf at Rambuka, in the Kukul Korale, and fell to a trap gun set over the kill. The colour is a dark coffee with black spots barely visible. The length of the beast was 8 ½ feet from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail.

“Unfortunately the skin was removed in a hurry and dried over smoke, while the tail was cut off for conversion to a walking stick. Black leopards also occur in South India and Malaya wherever rain forests exist and are rarest in Ceylon.

“It is generally the case that albinos are apt to appear side by side with melanics, but there does not appear to be any record from Ceylon although our black leopards display a few white flecks”.


The leopards of the low-country are, as a rule, larger than those found in the hills. Adult males will measure from six to seven feet from muzzle to tip of tail, stand from twenty-two to twenty-six inches high and weigh from 100 to 175 lbs. The females are of course smaller than the males. The ground colour of leopards varies from dark cinnamon red to rufous fawn with black spots arranged in rosettes and black rings on the tail. When seen in the shady forest, they appear to be of a dark grey colour, and if standing still, are not to be easily distinguished. Old animals will generally be found to have very light skins, the colour having faded from age, just as grey horses when aged, often become almost white.

Black leopards are said to have been shot but are extremely rare. They are believed to be merely freaks of nature (Clark,1901).

P.E.P.Deraniyagala, writing in the Times of Ceylon Annual of 1963 has renamed the Ceylon leopard - Panthera pardus fusca as Panthera pardus kotiya - Deraniyagala, for it differs, as he says, from the Indian form on the following grounds:-

(a) It is non-aggressive to man, (The Indian leopard is often a man-eater).
(b) It possess a smaller skull and a longer tail.
(c)Lacks the tendency to develop a terminal tail tuft.
(d) It never produces individuals that are blotched or marble in colour.

E.C. Fernando (1964), a well known taxidermist in his day, commenting on Deraniyagala’s assertion above, disagrees with Deraniyagala and gives reasons for this. I shall take up point by point, the items listed.

(a) Non-aggression towards human beings:-It is no great statement of fact to anybody who knows anything about animals to say that by instinct all animals are afraid of man.

The question of a leopard becoming a man-eater depends on factors such as availability of its natural food, the temerity of the villager etc. Undoubtedly, in Ceylon a cattle lifting leopard is not generally allowed to get away with it, for sooner or later it will be shot. In India, however, guns are less readily available and the cattle lifting leopard is allowed to become bolder and bolder until he might even savage a human being. The rest follows. To say that a Ceylon leopard is less aggressive than the Indian is, therefore, not correct.

(b) skull size and tail length:-

I have handled hundreds of skulls of Ceylon leopards and a few of the Indian ones and can quite safely say that there is no validity for the statement that the Ceylon leopard has a smaller skull and a longer tail. Even in Ceylon there are two vaguely separable types.

The massive and stockily built ones, others lankier and more slenderly built. The size of a leopard, its skull etc., will depend largely on the availability of food and the age of the specimen under examination.

(c) Tail tufts:-

None of the Indian leopard skins that I had the opportunity of preparing had any sign of the tail tufts Deraniyagala speaks of.

According to Clark (1901) ‘No other wild animals have a keener sight or sharper sense of hearing.

It is to these two senses and their wonderful agility that leopards have to trust to find and secure their food.

There seems little doubt that their power of smell is very poor’.

Phillip Crowe (1956) says that the leopard has virtually no sense of smell, due primarily to the rancid food he eats, but he has wonderfully keen eyes and might easily distinguish khaki in the moonlight. [The reference is to khaki clothes which hunters wear in the jungle]

E.C. Fernando says “Human scent means nothing to a leopard. The leopard has not got the powers of scent given to other carnivores but is compensated with extremely good eyesight and hearing.”

Phillips (1942) says that the leopard or panther ranges widely throughout the country.

He refers to it as panthera pardus fuscus. He goes on to say that the leopard here does not differ as a species from the leopard in India and is indistinguishable from that animal.

Drastically reduced

Like the pig, the leopard is not protected in Ceylon and is shot, except in reserves, at all seasons, often illegally from cars at night, when it is blinded by the headlights.

The Wildlife Protection Society is interested in preserving the leopard and it is hoped sufficient pressure will be brought on the Government to give this beautiful animal the same respite that the deer and the peafowl now enjoy.

A six months closed season and a limit of one leopard per person per year would go far toward building up the breed, and still not work undue hardship on sportsmen (Crowe, 1956) In the same paper Phillips makes a very important statement “if this interesting fauna is to be saved from the early destruction with which much of it is threatened, it will be necessary to make adequate provision for its survival in each separate climatic zone”.

Now 59 years later we find that the leopard population is drastically reduced and even extirpated from certain parts of the country. One reason or this is the rapid reduction of its habitat through jungle clearing for development activities. The reduction of the deer and sambhur population through poaching is another reason for the decline. A further reason is that the leopard was systematically hunted for its pelt, which fetched good prices. It was also killed by hunters for the ‘sport’ that they derived from this shooting.

Fortunately now, due to strict controls, leopard skins are difficult to market and smuggle out of the country.

However, coming back to Phillips’ proposal, no ‘adequate provisions for its survival’ has been made except where the leopard’s habitat falls within the boundaries of national parks or other protected areas. Unfortunately no systematic scientific research has been carried out at all.

Accurate information on its ranging behaviour, reproduction, food preferences and regularity of killing its prey etc. are necessary if effective conservation plans are to be formulated in the future.

With obvious foresight Phillips says that ‘The only satisfactory and sure method of preserving a residue of a fauna from eventual extermination is the allocating inviolable Wild Life Sanctuaries or National Parks, in which, under the guidance and control of benevolent humanity, nature is allowed to run its course’.

In 1928 it is reported that R.H.Willis shot a male leopard that measured 8ft. 2 ¾ ins from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, in the Kantalai area.

Those who shot leopards in the past did not observe the leopard closely in the wild state and make an effort to learn its habits. This is because the leopard was not tracked down and shot but was shot at a water hole during the drought or whilst going for a bait that had been laid out for it.

Shooting of deer was allowed at water holes during the open season. But they were also shot out of season when, during the dry season, the animals driven by thirst lose their patience and stealth.

Good ventriloquist

Agar (1942) says that the sawing of a leopard indicates that it is contented and happy. It does not saw when it is looking for game. He also says that the leopard is a good ventriloquist and cheats its prey by pretending it is somewhere else. However, Wickwar (1947) says, “The harsh grating roar of the leopard is generally heard at night.

“The sound is repeated three times and is similar to the noise made by sawing an empty packing case, and at close quarters it is rather alarming.

“The Sinhalese hunt them for the sake of their extremely beautiful skins, but prefer taking them in traps and pitfalls, and, occasionally in spring cages formed of poles driven firmly into the ground, within which a kid is generally fastened as a bait; the door being held open by a sapling bent down by the united force of several men, and so arranged to act as a spring, to which a noose is ingeniously attached, formed of a plaited deer’s hide.

The cries of the kid attract the leopard, which being tempted to enter, is enclosed by the liberation of the spring, and grasped firmly round the body by the noose (Tennent,1861).

Leopard on a tea estate

“The following account of a most unusual incident which recently occurred on this estate (Ambawela Estate), namely an unprovoked attack by a leopard on labourers in broad daylight, may be of some interest to your readers.

At 10-30 am on Mount Olive section of the estate a woman labourer named Caderaie was weeding the contract and some 100 feet away 17 labourers were employed on manuring. To quote her own story Caderaie, on hearing a peculiar growling noise looked up to find a leopard facing her in the tea. She shouted for help and at that moment the leopard sprang on her. In warding off the attack she was bitten through the right hand and received two blows, one badly lacerating her nose, and the other her right arm.

Hearing her cries the manuring labourers came round behind the leopard to head it off from the jungle whilst one of their number, Sinniah, ran to the nearby lines and got a single barrel shotgun and proceeded to stalk the leopard in the tea. He was just on the point of firing when the animal turned and charged him.

He fired and missed and was bowled over by the leopard which bit him through the calf of the left leg, he also sustained minor injuries to his right hand.

The leopard then sprang clear and turned to attack him again but with great courage Sinniah managed to regain his feet, reload and shoot the leopard through the head thereby saving any further casualties.

All this happened within 100 yards of the main Ambawela P.W.D. road where I happened to be passing in my car at the time. I immediately despatched the two injured labourers to my estate hospital where they were given anti-tetanus injections and I am glad to say both have now fully recovered from their injuries.

On examination of the leopard I found it to be a male, seven feet in length. Teeth, claws and coat were in excellent condition and to all outward appearances the animal was in good health showing no clue to account for its strange behaviour. As a sign of the times it is worth noting that after the leopard was skinned labourers cooked and ate the carcase (sic) (Lemmon, 1944).

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